Unless you’ve been living in the wilderness of the rural Vermont frontier, you probably have heard that uber-director James (Titanic and Aliens) Cameron is back with an incredible “game-changing” new film called “Avatar” that has imperial audiences and critics talking. Much has been made, and rightly so, of the movie’s brilliance: the creation of an entirely new language, for example, and the film’s iridescent three-dimensional visuality – a phenomenal spectacle – and well-worth seeing on the big screen. Equally interesting, though, is “Avatar’s” highly critical anti-imperial vision, dismissed by most mainstream critics, like the New Yorker’s David Denby, as little more than echoes of 1960s counter-culture. For anyone considering the United States as Empire, however, “Avatar’s” evocative and disturbing storyline – “Aliens” meets “Dances With Wolves” meets Lord of the Rings” – proves much more damning than not.
The story unfolds like this. Sometime in the future, a young and embittered U.S. ex-marine named Jake Sully (a convincing Sam Worthington) ships out to a remote mining colony called Pandora. Leg-less, Sully finds himself a mercenary working for the Company as a specially trained soldier who inhabits an “avatar,” a genetically hybridized creature designed to build relationships with the natives known as Na’Vi. Sully’s job is to “win hearts and minds,” as the old imperialistic propaganda goes. The Company’s ongoing goal? Profit-maximization through the pursuit of an element called “Unobtanium.” (I can see Cameron smiling.)
Tough-talking scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) heads up the avatar program, and when she isn’t butting heads with the Company brass, she oversees training for Sully, who finds himself separated from his team on his first foray into the jungle. His life saved by a beautiful “barbarian,” he winds up in the hands of “the savages, and soon discovers that this indigenous community is defined by “the bond” – connections between all living things, The tall, lithe, tailed, blue, willowy creatures that Sully impersonates share a deep “hook up” (quite literally) to the stunning natural world of Pandora – cascading waterfalls, craggy chasms and canyons, and a diverse array of fascinating, marvelous (and ferocious) creatures.
The Omaticaya, as the natives call themselves, revere a mystical energetic force called Eywa, an animist Spirit that infuses all living things. “I have come to learn,” says Sully/Avatar to the “hostiles” at his first meeting. “It is hard to teach the Sky People,” one of the Na’Vi leaders responds. “It is hard to fill a vessel that is already full.” Sully soon finds himself torn between his attraction for the Na’Vi and their chief’s beautiful daughter, and his official avatar/marine mission – to convince the Na’Vi to move their village off of one of the largest Unobtanium deposits in the area. His training in “the flow of energy” and “spirits of animals” (“tree hugging crap,” Sully calls it at first) is by turns humorous and breath-takingly beautiful, helped along by the 3D/CGI throw down and the boundless imagination of Cameron and his team.
Most compelling, perhaps, is the oddly deja-vu-like quality of “Avatar.” Thematically, the scenes in the film – helicopter gunships thrashing down onto the green underbrush, muscled military men hoisting gigantic weapons, and the like – are eerie-ly reminiscent of moments from the Vietnam “police action” or dozens of other “theaters” of conflict that defined the 20th century, history’s bloodiest, and are quickly moving to define this next one. In the Age of Twitter, this time writer Wallace Stegner once called “the amputated present,” we are quick to forget our own history of violence against “the natives” and nature itself, and Cameron’s film brings back this history with disturbing three-dimensional vividness. By the time the rock-hard Company commander issues a “preemptive strike against the aboriginal horde” (“We will fight terror with terror,” he snarls) in an attempt to “blow a huge hole in their racial memory,” Cameron makes it clear to the point of cliché what histories he is retelling. When Sully and a small band of rogue Company employees decide to “go native” and mount an organized resistance campaign, it is hard not to stand up, remove the 3D glasses, and cheer.
How “Avatar” plays out I will not reveal here. The ultimate irony, perhaps, for Sully and for us all, is this: as we destroy the real world – beautiful, connected, sacred, organic – the only “place” many of us think we can retreat to is the world of networked electronic technology (Second Life, anyone?), itself a “Cyberia” created by the mining of the planet’s natural yet finite resources.
The ultimate form of Imperialism.
And it takes a Hollywood director to shock us back into our senses.
“All energy is borrowed,” Sully learns from his nubile and gifted young teacher, “and one day you must give it back.”
As we enter the 21st century and “the age of limits,” truer words have not been spoken.
At least not by Hollywood.